April 12, 2021 10 min read

The glute ham raise (GHR) does what it says on the tin - it’s an incredibly effective way to grow your upper legs and build buns of steel.

But the GHR machine is a bulky and expensive piece of equipment that’s missing from many commercial gyms and is unlikely to make its way into your home. Does this mean giving up on growing your glutes and hams?

Not at all. This selection of glute ham raise alternatives will build bulk and power in your upper legs and leave your sitting muscles sore. Ready for a butt worth bragging about? Let’s get to it!

What Does The GHR Do?

The glute ham raise, also known as the glute ham developer (GHD), is a posterior chain strength and hypertrophy exercise. For the non-scientists in the room, that means it burns up pretty much every muscle on the back side of your body, and hits your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings especially hard.

This builds serious muscle mass, improves full-body strength and stability, and can improve back health. The GHR works knee flexion and hip extension, taking your hamstrings through their full range of motion while building strong upper legs and bulletproofing your lower body.

The GHR will also shred your core, and does all of this using only your body weight. If you lift, you’re going to want to reap those benefits, as building a strong posterior chain will help you to lift heavy and take your squat, deadlift, and clean to the next level.

Including the GHR in your leg day rotation will also increase lower-body explosiveness, get you running faster, and may cause your pants to fit tighter. That all sounds good - why would you do anything else?

For a lot of people, the main reason is access. A glute ham raise machine is a big ol’ piece of equipment with a price tag that matches its size, and it’s not versatile - it’s great for glute ham raises, and… that’s it. For a lot of commercial and home gyms, the cost to benefit ratio just doesn’t make sense. The GHR is also not a beginner move.

You won’t complete your glute ham raise reps with good form unless you already have serious posterior chain strength and a lot of gym experience. Alternatives to the glute ham raise allow you to:

  • Build strength: While the glute ham raise throws you in at the deep end, the exercises below let you gradually increase the weight and difficulty you’re handling, so you can match the pace and intensity to your strength level and goals.  
  • Work from home: ...or from a garage gym, or even on the go. The exercises below use equipment that you’re likely to have access to, and the variations let you adjust your approach to the tools you have available.
  • Change it up: No matter how effective an exercise is, if you do it day in day out you’re going to stop seeing gains. Using a range of compound exercises to target your glutes and hams will keep your muscles active and engaged. Giving them new challenges and new motions will keep them growing and build major functional strength.

Why Work The Glutes and Hams?

If you’ve been scrolling through #fitspo on social media, you’d be forgiven for believing that the glutes and thigh muscles just exist to look good. A lot of fitness influencers seem to want a bubble butt and strong legs so they can fill out their yoga pants just right. That’s as good a reason as any to chase gains, but the glutes and hams do a whole lot more than just sit pretty.

Glutes

Your glutes, or butt muscles, are made up of three muscle sets - the gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus. The maximus is the main player, and the biggest and strongest muscle in your body.

The maximus allows you to extend your hips and move your thighs, as well as filling out your jeans. The medius rotates the thigh and moves the leg away from the middle of the body, while the minimus works together with the medius and stabilizes your pelvis when you’re running or walking.

Together with your abs, obliques, and lower back, the glutes are part of your body’s core and are key to explosive movements like jumping and sprinting, as well as helping you stand, sit, and walk. Strong glutes will help you to lift heavy and reduce back pain, while weak glutes will put stress on your hamstrings, knees, calves, and lower body joints.

As the glutes are one of the largest muscle sets in your body, growing your glutes will also increase your lean body mass. This will raise your metabolic rate and so help you to burn up calories both during and after workouts.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are a group of muscles and tendons on the back side of your upper leg. They work to flex the knee joint and extend the hip, and get moving when you walk, run, jump and take the stairs.

The hams work in opposition to the quads, so it’s important to balance quad-targeted workouts with exercises that build strength in the hamstrings. These muscles are also vulnerable to injury during sports that mix running with fast starts and stops - basketball, soccer, football, or tennis - and hamstring pulls and strains are some of the most common injuries in both pro athletes and gym newbies.

Strengthening your hams will help you to avoid hamstring and knee injury, so keep you running with the pack. And together with the calves and back, the glutes and hamstrings make up the posterior chain - one of the largest and most powerful muscle groups in the body.

Whether you’re a bodybuilder, sprinter, weightlifter, footballer, or just someone who likes being able to move around and lift things, you’re going to want a strong posterior chain. Sounds like it’s time to get those glutes and ham it up.

GHR Replacement Criteria

To make the cut, the exercises below all do at least one of the following:

  • Strengthen the posterior chain: The alternatives below are compound exercises that work the back, butt, and hams. Training one muscle set at a time can be useful, but using them together in compound movements will send your gains and functional fitness skyrocketing.
  • Work the hips: Hip hinges and hip thrusts are hugely important movements for maintaining whole-body mobility, whether you’re playing sports, weightlifting, or just bending over to pick something up. Healthy hips contribute to maintaining spine, knee, and lower back health. 
  • Build core strength: Strong glutes with a weak core are like a bike without wheels - you could build it, but it’ll get you nowhere fast. One of the key functions of the glutes is stabilizing your trunk together with the core, so great glute exercises will work them together. A strong core also works together with your glutes to help you lift heavier and avoid injury.

So without further ado, the best exercises to grow your glutes, hammer your hams, and build legit lower body strength.

The 7 Best GHR Alternative Exercises

    1. Good Mornings
    2. Romanian Deadlift
    3. Nordic Hamstring Curl
    4. Kettlebell Swing
    5. Hip Thrusts
    6. Cable Pull-Throughs
    7. Reverse Hyperextension

    1. Good Mornings 

    Time to rise and shine. Good mornings are a great alternative to the glute ham raise because they work all the same muscles in a similar range of motion but in reverse. Good form is key as bad form can lead to injury, and that’s not a good look on anyone.

    • Start in a standing position, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your shoulder blades squeezed back. Hold a barbell across your upper back and shoulders. Keep a slight bend in your knees throughout the exercise.
    • Keeping your spine neutral, hinge forward from the hips until your upper body is parallel to the ground. 
    • Engage your glutes and hamstrings to pull your body back up to standing position.
    • Repeat.

    Variation: Banded Good Mornings
    A great alternative to standard good mornings if you’re on the go or don’t have access to a barbell that uses a resistance band. Stand on one part of the band and loop the other end around the back of your neck.

    Stand up straight. Bend your hips back while keeping your back neutral and lower your upper body until it’s parallel to the floor. Extend your hips to return to starting position. Repeat. 


    2. Romanian Deadlift

    The Romanian deadlift is a deadly effective posterior chain exercise, bulking out your back, glutes, and hams, while also training hip extension. Use heavier weights for fewer reps (instead of lighter weights and more reps) to see greater gains in less time, but make sure that you can maintain good form throughout a set.

    • Start in a standing position with your feet about hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Hold a barbell at hip level with an overhand grip. Pull your shoulders back and keep your back straight.
    • Hinge and push back your hips while lowering the barbell in front of your legs. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
    • When the barbell reaches just below your knees, engage your glutes and hamstrings to pull up into starting position. 
    • Repeat. 

    3. Nordic Hamstring Curl

    If you’re looking to supersize your hams, look no further - this exercise is the one. Also known as natural GHRs, Nordic hamstring curls are an effective and versatile bodyweight exercise that will strengthen your hamstrings and protect them from injury, while also building mass in your arms, chest, and shoulders.

    Whether you’re working out in your garage gym or in the park, there’s a Nordic hamstring curl variation for you. Expect to do a low number of reps, as this move will really hammer your hams.

    You will need a soft surface for your knees (a mat or cushion) and something stable to secure your feet. You can use a weighted barbell, lat pulldown machine, doorway pull-up bar, a partner, or your trusty couch to keep your feet in place. 

    • Start in a kneeling position on a soft surface and secure your ankles. Your back should be straight.
    • Engage your hamstrings, glutes, and abs.
    • Slowly lean forward as far as you can, keeping your back straight. It’s likely that you will not be able to lower to the floor when first starting out, so be ready to catch yourself as you descend. 
    • Contract your hamstrings to raise your body back into starting position. You may need to push yourself off the ground to get started. Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes when you reach starting position.
    • Repeat.

    Beginner variation: When you’re starting out, tie resistance bands to a high anchor point and wrap them around your upper body to take some of the weight off your descent.

    Body-blaster: If you’re knocking out rep after rep with perfect form, holding weights at shoulder height will turn up the heat and give you a challenge you won’t forget. 

    4. Kettlebell Swing

    The kettlebell swing is a classic for a reason. It’s a powerful explosive exercise that will set your hams and glutes on fire. Expect to see improved hip extension, glute power, and explosive movement when you’ve got into the swing of it.

    • Start in a standing position, with your feet just over shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell on the floor in front of you.
    • Lean forward from the hips, keeping your spine neutral with a slight bend in your knees. Grab the kettlebell with both hands and pull it back between your legs.
    • Extend your hips to push back up into standing position, while swinging the kettlebell to around eye level.
    • Lower back down, letting the kettlebell swing between your legs. 
    • Repeat. 

    Variation: If you don’t have a kettlebell, this exercise can be completed with a dumbbell. Hold a dumbbell by one end with both hands, and complete the move as above. 

    5. Hip Thrusts

    The barbell hip thrust is a great weight-training move that drives posterior chain activation. It builds muscle and strength in your glutes, lower back, and hamstrings as well as your core and hip adductors.

    Adding a barbell to the standard hip thrust seriously increases the difficulty of this move, so expect to feel sore the next day.

    • Start with your upper back leaning against a raised surface, like a bench or a box. Your knees should be bent and your feet should be flat on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Place a barbell on your hips.  
    • Lift your hips up from the ground until your thighs are parallel to the floor and your knees are at 90-degree angles. Squeeze your glutes. 
    • Slowly lower back into starting position. 
    • Repeat.

    Variations:

    Keep it simple. The hip thrust can be done using just your bodyweight - less challenging, but more portable. The weight of the barbell can also be replaced with one or two dumbbells. 

    If you don’t have access to a bench, start lying down on a mat with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips to their highest point, stabilizing the barbell with your hands.

    This is a weighted glute bridge, which works the same sets of muscles in a similar range of motion.


    6. Cable Pull-Throughs

    Warning: Cable pull-throughs will leave your lower body aching. But if you can pull through the pain, this move will build insane glute and hamstring strength. Use a resistance band if you don’t have access to a cable machine.

    • Attach the rope to the lower setting of the cable machine. Stand with your back towards the pulley and the cable between your legs, holding one side of the rope in each hand. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, and there should be a slight bend in your knees. Take a few steps forward.
    • Bend forward by hinging from the hips, and let the rope move back as far as possible towards the machine. 
    • Without bending your arms, extend through the hips in a strong movement to return to standing position. Lock your hips and squeeze your glutes.
    • Repeat. 

    7. Reverse Hyperextension

    The reverse hyperextension is one of the best alternatives to the glute ham raise because it puts the same set of muscles to work. It’s a great exercise for driving glute and hamstring hypertrophy and building posterior chain power and strength.

    You will need a surface that is stable and high enough to give you a long range of motion, like a flat bench.

    • Start with your torso and hips on the bench and your legs hanging off the edge. Hold on to the bench to stabilize yourself.
    • Extend your legs and slowly raise them behind you as high as you are able to go. At the same time, press your hips into the bench. Hold your legs for a moment at the top position.
    • Lower your legs back to starting position.
    • Repeat. 

    Stay Safe and Strong

    As with any exercises, make sure to warm up before you get moving, cool down afterward, and give your body the fuel and rest it needs to recover. These moves are best mixed in with a varied strength and cardio routine - spending all week doing only hamstring exercises will lead to pain, not gains.

    When you’re starting out with a new exercise, consider getting a personal trainer or coach to help you perfect your form and avoid injury, and start with lighter weights that allow you to maintain good form throughout a set. If you experience pain while doing any exercises, stop immediately and consult a health or fitness professional.

    No Butts About It

    So that’s the secret to building mass and strength in your posterior chain. Mix a few of these exercises into your leg day routine and get ready for glorious glutes and rock-hard hams!


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